In the Infancy Narratives, the men from the East who follow a bright star across a desert to worship the baby in the manger are the ultimate men of mystery and international intrigue. No one seems quite sure who they were, even all these centuries later.
They are the only major characters in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ early life that go unnamed. We’re not even sure what to call them—wise men? Magi (whatever that means)? Or the three kings of Orient, as the old carol has it? We don’t know where they came from—the “East” could be Persia or just as easily Arabia or Chaldea. We’re not even sure there were actually three of them—as the gospel writer makes no mention of their number.
In the Greek text, the men are identified as magoi, a sweeping term that most likely refers to the caste of priests associated with ancient Persia. But the term can also be broadly defined as “teachers, priests, healers, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augers, soothsayers, sorcerers”—hence, the modern English word magic.
Such ambiguity may not be such a bad thing. More important than who they were is what they represent and what they teach us about the journey to faith in the true God, so says Pope Benedict XVI, in his new book, the Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. The Pope writes:
“The ambivalence of the concept of the Magi that we find here illustrates the ambivalence of religion in general. It can become the path to true knowledge, the path to Jesus Christ. But when it fails, in his presence, to open up to him and actually opposes the one God and Saviour, it becomes demonic and destructive.”
This may sound like an alarming lapse into relativism for a pope famous for his jeremiads against it—but it isn’t. That God somehow used the religious background of the Magi to bring them to Christ really isn’t any more radical than someone coming to faith after experiencing the beauty of the night sky or the blackness of addiction.
Plus, the idea that another religion can prepare the way for Christian faith is entirely biblical. Skipping forward past the gospels we find an instance of this in the Acts of the Apostles. Midway through the epistle and St. Paul finds himself in the epicenter of philosophy in the ancient world: Athens. As might be expected, Paul is quickly drawn into extensive disputations with representatives of the leading philosophical schools of the day, including the Stoics and Epicureans. It must have been the ultimate debate—the leading philosophers of the age versus a saint and an apostle.
But much of Paul’s work was already done for him before he even got there, according to Acts:
“But Paul standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are too superstitious. For passing by, and seeing your idols, I found an altar also, on which was written: ‘To the unknown God.’ What therefore you worship, without knowing it, that I preach to you.”
To be sure, Paul rebukes the Athenians for being “too superstitious,” although the original text could also be translated as overly pious. The Greeks were hedging their bets, much like the treacherous guide Beni Gabor in the popular film The Mummy. When confronted by the ghoulish mummy, Gabor whips out a cross and prays for protection. But the mummy continues to advance. So Gabor pulls out a Muslim crescent, belting out Arabic blessings with seemingly flawless inflection. Failing that, he tries Buddhist incantation, finally crying out in Hebrew. (Click here to view the clip.)
Much like Gabor, the Greeks were equal opportunity believers. Yet, in the midst of their theological confusion, they had left room in their worldview for a God whom they did not even know. So when Paul arrived in Athens, he didn’t need to convince them there was a God. Instead the good news that he was preaching concerned who this God specifically was (to paraphrase Aiden Nichols).
We don’t know specifically what paths—figurative and literal—the Magi took to ancient Israel. As the Pope notes, their personal journeys are less important than their roles as stand-ins for all of humanity.
Although unsupported directly by Scripture, other traditions have seen the Magi coming from East and far West—as far as Spain. The Pope cites another tradition which held that they were really three kings, each from one of the three known continents at the time—Africa, Asia, and Europe. Finally, others have seen the three men as representative of the three stages of life—youth, maturity, and old age. Without endorsing or eschewing any one of these traditions, the Pope sees them as pointing to the broader significance of the Magi:
“The key point is this: the wise men from the east are a new beginning. They represent the journeying of humanity towards Christ. They initiate a procession that continues throughout history. Not only do they represent the people who have found their way to Christ: they represent the inner aspiration of the human spirit, the dynamism of religions and human reason toward him.”
Put another way, Jesus indeed is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, but the Magi teach us that there are many paths that lead to the Way. Perhaps the old adage—all roads lead to Rome—is even more true of Christ.